Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, November 24, 2020


 "Calico" by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (first appeared in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, November 1867, without author credit; reprinted in Phelps' collection Men, Women, and Ghosts, 1869)

An early work -- published when she has just turned 22 -- from a rather unconventional person.  It tells of Charlotte (Sharly) Guest, a young and very impressionable girl who is infatuated with an older friend of the family, Halcombe Dike -- a newly minted architect.  Dike had left for the city to pursue his career and has returned for a weekend, having had little luck in gaining commissions.  Dike's expected return home has Sharly all aflutter.  He had been very to her in the past and she considers him a good friend; in it only later in the story that we learn she dreams of marrying him, although her feelings have been fairly obvious from the start. 

Sharly is the oldest of five children:  the baby, Nate, Methuselah, and the very unmanageable Moppet.  Her father works long hours at his grain store and her mother suffers from headaches and has Sharley do most of the work caring for the four youngest children, along with a myriad of boring and prosaic household choirs.  To Sharley, it seems the only real respite she has is going to church on Sundays, and even then she must keep an eye on Moppet, who has been known to throw things at a lady's hat during the services.  But this Sunday, ah! this Sunday, she has a chance to go to the services alone...a chance to see and to talk with Halcombe Dike.

I see I'm getting ahead of myself.  First we must understand how young Sharly is.  Not in age, mind you (we learn late in the story that she is eighteen), but in just about everything that counts.  She puts on her next-to-very-best dress and rushes to the railroad station to view Halcombe Dike get off the Saturday train.  Certainly he will see her and stop to talk with her.  But he doesn't, Sharly's cherished Halcolme rushes past her unknowing, his mind on something else.  But he always stops by the Guest house on Saturday at twilight for a visit.  She waits patiently, but he does not appear.  Somewhat devastated, Sharly goes to bed, knowing that she will see him in church the next morning.  Fate intervenes.  Her mother's headaches are better and she decides to go to church herself, leaving Sharly at home with the baby and Moppet.  Sharly is devastated.

The worse things happen for Sharly.  Dike, returning from church, passes the Guest's barn and notices Sharly.  But Sharly is a mess.  Moppet had covered her with yellow leaves, her hair is a mess, and she's wearing a "horrid old" morning dress. Her eyes are wet from crying.  And as Dike approached and talks to her, Moppet pours a bucket of water on her.

Perhaps things will better in the evening.  While trying to get Moppet to sleep, she hears the voice of a visitor coming from downstairs.  It must be Halcombe Dyke!  But Moppet insists that Sharley stay with him until he falls asleep and he will not fall asleep.  If Sharly tries to leave, Moppet will holler and and holler, louder and louder.  Finally, Moppet falls asleep and Sharley rushes downstairs only to find the visitor has left.  It was not Halcombe Dike, but was Deacon Snow come to talk about the revival.  Ear;ly the next morning, the train leaves, taking Halcolme Dike with him.

Sharley comes to a sharp realization that her dreams of Halcombe Dike were only dreams.  She "had believed, purely and gravely, that she was dear to him. Gravely and purely too she had dreamed that this October Sunday would bring some sign to her of their future."  

And what would be ahead for her?  "The Moppet and the baby, her mother's headaches; milking the cow, and kneading the bread, , and darning the stockings; going to church in old hats -- for what difference would it make for anybody now, whether she trimmed them with Scotch plaid or sarcent cambric? -- coming home to talk over revivals with Deacon Snow, or sit down in a proper way, like decent old people, in the house with a lamp, and read Somebody's Life and Letters.  Never more any moonlight, and watching, and strolling!  Never any more hoping, or wishing, or expecting, for Sharley."

Sharley then goes into a deep funk, going through her chores robot-like and snappish.  Months drag on and she begins to consciously realize the depths of her unhappiness.  She wanders by the railroad track and when she hears the train approaching, she lies down and puts her head on the track, just waiting to end it all.  Then she changes her minds gets up, falls down the banking and buries her head in the snow.  Consumption would be a much better way to go.  But Sharley is found by Halcobme Dike's Cousin Sue, who takes her to the Dike household to warm up.  There, she receives an epiphany when Halcombe's  mother tells her that God did not give us troubles to worry about; some people are not meant to have exciting or bonny lives; they should accept that and get on.

With that revelation, Sharley gets on, accepting that she will never be Mrs Holcombe Dike and (probably) never Mrs. anyone else.  This gives her a sense of calm and happiness.  She moves on with her life with a new improved attitude in the little niche that was her home.  She will wear her life bravely.  That could be the end of the story, there's a coda.

It's April and Sharley is lost in her thoughts while walking through a stand of hickories.  An unexpected violent storm took her unawares.  Frightened, she ran through some bushes as lightning struck a tree next to where she was.  Sharley falls to the ground, unconscious.  She wakes up in the lap of Mr. Holcombe Dike.  He had found her and carried her to shelter under a small woodpile.  As the storm rages on, he professes his love for her.  He had deliberately avoided her before because he had felt himself a failure at his profession and would not place her in a life of poverty.   But now he had a successful and profitable commission and felt worthy enough to come for her.

A sappy ending, but what the heck?  The readers of Harper's in 1867 would be pleased.  There's more behind this story than there appears to be.  A young girl transitions to an adult after having her childish dreams smashed?  What kind of adulthood is there for her?  What role does society expect of her?  This was a time when "she could light a lamp and finish her hat.  That was one comfort.  It always is a comfort to finish one's hat.  Girls have forgotten far graver troubles than Sharley's in the excitement of Saturday-night millenary."  And earlier we are told, "to see her overturning her ribbon-box!  Nobody but a girl knows how girls dream over their ribbons."  Elizabeth Stuart  Phelps, you see (and as I mentioned above), was an unconventional person for her time.  An early feminist author, she challenged the traditional role of women in marriage and in the family, and through most of her career, opposed the view that a woman's happiness and fulfillment lay within marriage and the family.  The little examples of the importance of ribbons and hats and dresses in this story are, I feel, a warning shot of her advocacy for women's clothing reform.  (Later in life she advocated that women burn their corsets -- a harbinger of the women's movement a century later, perhaps.)

She was born Mary Gray Phelps in 1844, the daughter of a Congregational minister.  Her mother, Elizabeth, was an author of a series of books for girls and of religious articles.  Mary's mother died when she was eight and Mary asked to be renamed for her mother.  From that time, she became Elizabeth Stuart Phelps.  she loved making up and telling stories and had her first story published when she was thirteen.  In 1864, Harper's published her first adult fiction, after which she began writing books, first, for children, along with   other magazine stories.  Her seventh book firmly cemented her reputation.  The Gates Ajar, was the first of three "spiritual" novels that challenged to prevalent Christian view of the afterlife; it had taken her two years and many revisions to write.  The following year her first collection, Men, Women, and Ghosts appeared, containing nine stories, including one of the most famous Gothic ghost stories of the nineteenth century, "Kentucky's Ghost" (first published in The Atlantic Monthly, November 1868), as well as "The Tenth of January," (The Atlantic Monthly, March 1868) a story of the 1860 collapse and fire at the Pemberton Mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts, which killed an estimate 145 workers, many of them women.  Surely, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps was a writer to be reckoned with.

Phelps was also a popular lecturer (she was the first woman to give a series of lectures at Boston University, for example).  Both her lectures and her book espoused such causes as social reform, temperance, women's emancipation, anti-vivisectionism, and the plight of poverty on children.  She shocked society when she married author Herbert Dickinson Ward in 1888, a man seventeen years younger than her, who would eventually co-author three books with her.

"Calico" is available online in the collection Men, Women, and Ghosts.  The entire collection may be worth your time.

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